Intellectual history

Performing Organic Nationhood as Democracy: Gymnastic Associations in Interwar East Central Europe

By Lucija Balikić

By Lucija Balikić

The ‘crisis of liberal democracy’ saturates contemporary political discourse. Similarly, during the interwar period in East Central Europe, the crisis of liberalism and the purpose of democracy distressed the minds of the intelligentisa in new post-imperial nations. Across different disciplines – the crisis of liberal democracy has come to explain various extremist movements, authoritarian and populist regimes, the passivity of citizens, as well as numerous wars and rebellions. When it comes to the historiography of interwar Europe, its most paradigmatic example and expression is usually seen in the so-called ‘Weimar crisis,’ which is used to account for the rise of Nazism and the popular support for the policies of the Third Reich. When discussing the contemporary rise of populism in East Central Europe, many thinkers argue that it can partially be explained not only by the aforementioned concept but also by the alleged historical lack of democratic traditions in the region. This often leads to essentializing the region, based on the argument that due to the historical experiences of imperial and state-socialist regimes, democracy can hardly be expected to take root in its societies. This view, thus, operates with a very limited, dehistoricized, and decontextualized understanding of democracy—which does not take into account its historical-conceptual conflation with the positivist, organic, and depoliticized idea of nationhood.

In this piece, I explore an alternative angle on the explanatory value of using such a plastic view of the ‘crisis of liberal democracy’ by shifting the focus toward the conceptual history of ‘democracy’ and ‘‘nation,’’ the two key concepts which shaped the political debates across the spectrum in the first half of the twentieth century. Specifically, I would like to draw attention to the regional socio-political and linguistic contexts they were articulated in, focusing on the otherwise underrepresented yet highly relevant case of the local massive gymnastic associations, such as Sokol, that served as crucial ‘sites’ of political thinking and socialization, mushrooming across the region and beyond from the turn of the century onwards.

The importance of studying thinkers engaged in these massive nationally-framed gymnastic associations is in the fact that they considered themselves to be above politics because their ideas of nationhood rested on the presumption that it is in itself an objective, apolitical category. By bringing together the social and intellectual trajectories of such associations, this piece looks at the conflation of their ideas of democracy and organic nationhood, which aimed to overwrite social differences, in the context of the rise of mass politics that was prompted by the proliferation of such associations.

The local intelligentsia founded most Sokol chapters with an aim to encompass and ‘garden’ the entire national body of a given (projected) nation. The ‘gardening’ hereby denotes the widespread practical attempts by thinkers, experts, and practitioners—usually those with medical, scientific, or literary backgrounds—to ‘mold the national body.’ This was to be done in a way that ‘uncovers’ the nation’s collective physical and psychological traits but also maximizes human potential and performance, particularly regarding work, health, physical strength, reproduction, and political consciousness. Often, this agenda was prompted by a social Darwinist view of history and national characterologies, where pan-nationalisms (in this case pan-Slavism) played a notable role.

Precisely due to their experience of multifold imperial collapse at the end of the First World War and the subsequent creation of several new states of the ‘New Europe,’ the inheritors of particularly Habsburg liberal positivism found their way into Sokol associations which served to legitimize states such as Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Yugoslavia. Within the associational periodicals and other publications, they articulated the ‘national body’ as a suprasocial, apolitical, primordial, organic entity, using highly medicalized and psychologized positivist discourses that often played into various economy-driven eugenic initiatives:

Hereby lies the immense value of profilaxis, which is especially important from the socio-economic perspective, because it prevents all sorts of bodily deformities (…) which make people not only ugly, but also less valuable and less capable of work and economic productivity. (…) Once we accept this, we will surely succeed in using the cautionary measures to lessen the number of such deformities, as well as in completely eliminating those cases which represent a burden for the national economy.

Božidar Špišić “Tjelesni odgoj u službi zdravlja našeg naraštaja” [Physical education in the service of our youth’s health] Sokol na Jadranu, vol. 10-11 (1929): p. 146.

Importantly, in the post-Habsburg contexts, they defined the national community in contrast to the deep-seated social hierarchies seen as interwoven with national cultures (e.g., German in Austrian and Magyar in the Hungarian part of the Monarchy), based on their experience of the rapid nationalization of imperial state apparatus from the 1860s onwards. For instance, the 1905 rules of the Croatian Sokol in Dubrovnik use this argument to justify the associational goals:

…the main goal of these societies is the strong, brave, sacrificing organization of our national body (narodnog življa) for the defense of our national rights and trust (…) the equality of all peoples exists here only on paper (…) practically Hungarian and German elements rule in everything, including the field of education, and are hostile towards other nationalities of this Monarchy.

Pravila Hrvatskoga Sokola u Dubrovniku. (Priredio Drustveni Upravni Odbor.) (Statuten des croatischen Sokols in Ragusa.) [Rules of the Croatian Sokol in Dubrovnik. Produced by the Societies’ Management Committee] Dubrovnik, 1905: p. 1.

Moreover, after the grave disappointment with the inability of party politics to reconcile democracy and cultural diversity within such imperial contexts, the Sokol thinkers of the newly founded interwar states expected that national-cultural homogeneity within these new states would result in a much more democratic political culture. Specifically, they expected no competition over common resources and institutions. Additionally, due to their positivist background, they considered the needs and the character of the national body to be scientifically determinable and, thus, relatively easy to satisfy in such political constellations.

In other words, they verged on equating organic nationhood (situated within its own nation-state) with democracy, even though these states were set up as parliamentary democracies with expanded male suffrage, as a rule. Thus, they wanted to transgress this setup by ensuring all adult citizens’ political participation, which led them to— at least nominally—argue for elevating women’s political rights and enabling women to attain prominent positions within Sokol. This also meant that their understanding of democracy did not rely on party politics but was, in fact, directly conceptualized against it, as they saw different political actors and platforms as forces that ‘artificially divided’ the organic national body. For instance, already in 1912 in Sokolski Vestnik [Sokol Herald], Slovenian Sokol leaders framed themselves as being under attack by German-speaking social democrats and their gymnastic societies precisely due to such reasons:

Nationality and nation stand as wider social forms above the concept of political party and social class (stalež). Claims by political parties and social classes must never stand opposed to the generally recognized ethical principles of humanity and to the healthy, self-preserving principles of real nationality. Let us never forget that we are in a defensive mode. We Slovenes do not attack, and our holy and natural duty is to defend our land, language, and property, to fight for the conditions in which we are able to economically and culturally progress. Only a powerful and independent nation possesses economically independent social classes. For Slovenian workers, with bad education and contingent German influence, eagerly neglect the principle of national feeling…

Hereby, they appeal to scientific rationality as a basis for taking “nationhood” as an umbrella term:

… from what was stated, we see that today first socialists and the greatest world experts, such as Masaryk and Gumplowicz, recognize nationality as culturally and socially creative force and that the solving of the national question is of equal importance for solving the social problems. Since Sokolism is an institution which doesn’t recognize differences in name and class, it has the power and strength to gather all the members of our nation to whom liberty, progress, and independence are not just empty phrases, but who use them to build their own existence. […] Labor, free-minded in its thinking, and which yearns for independence, is exactly for that reason a member of Sokolism, as any other class whose members don’t renounce brotherhood and equality. Those who deny that do harm to the workers and do not understand the core of the Sokol idea.

“Sokolstvo in delavska telovadna društva [Sokolism and Workers’ Gymnastic Societies],” Sokolski Vestnik, Glasilo Župe Ljubljana I., Idrijske i Novomeške (May 1912): 4–7.

Thus, gathering the masses in such associations and engaging them in various physical and educational programs meant for them the concerted improvement and evolution of the ‘national body,’ but also enabled them to engage the masses into physically performing organic nationhood and democracy. The iconic Sokol gymnastic and aesthetic performances, known as slets, represented one of the key associational activities which served precisely for the purpose of modeling political participation, democratic horizontality, and fraternity (much less sorority, as women, were primarily symbolically included as mothers) of a given nation. This was particularly pertinent in cases of patchwork states as diverse as Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and to an extent, Poland. Such events were simultaneously part of the repertoire of many similar associations across Europe, not least because they mirrored each other’s morphology and symbolic politics. The numerous members of these associations were expected to work on their bodies and, consequently, on their characters, to contribute to and be able to showcase the strength, health, and the psychological profile of the collective ‘national body.’

Photo shows the Sokol performance in the courtyard of the local brewery in Škvorec (former Austria-Hungary, today Czech Republic), 1908.

When read along this grain, particularly in the post-Habsburg context, the development and the usage of the concepts of ‘nation’ and ‘democracy’ tells a different story and provides an alternative explanatory framework to the otherwise typical ‘crisis of liberal democracy.’ Specifically, in such contexts, primordial and integral nationalism posed itself as socially and economically emancipatory when juxtaposed with their previous experience. This was because it claimed to respond to the ills of the peripheral, deglobalized economic positions of these newly founded states; the faults of the dysfunctional and exclusivist political model of nationalizing empires; and to mend the immense cultural and religious diversity of the populations that found themselves within the new polities. In other words, Sokol thinkers expected that the homogenous and apolitical ‘national body’ would better itself through masses’ participation in Sokol activities, thus becoming more economically productive and viable, but also highly politically unified and stable, as everyone’s political interests were seen as positively determinable and largely common.

For that reason, massive participation in Sokol and similar associations  were an important developmental phase of the local political cultures. In the same vein, it can be seen as a predecessor and a reference point of the contemporary attempts at using the language of organic nationhood to overwrite social differences; discursively simulate protectionism against the negative effects of global capitalism on semi-peripheral economies and; mobilize and include the widest masses into symbolic political participation.

Conversely, relying on the concept of ‘crisis of liberal democracy’ when discussing historical or contemporary ‘democratic backsliding’ thus neglects the social aspect around such discourses (by shifting the focus to institutions and rule of law); the regional context (namely its continuous situatedness on the semi-periphery of global capitalism); and the historical experience of nationalizing empires because of which the very concepts of nationhood and democracy have been intertwined in their formative periods of Sattelzeit.

Furthermore, the latter conceptual frameworks are lost when applying the ‘crisis of liberal democracy’ as an explanatory framework for populist or authoritarian regimes, as their collectivist, anti-imperialist, anti-parliamentarian, economic protectionist, socially cohesive, and positivist meanings and origins are disregarded. To conclude, disjointing contemporary discussions on these challenges from their formative (post-)imperial context is counterproductive since many of these elements still play a major role in the make-up of contemporary political languages and represent a powerful political mobilization.

Lucija Balikić is a PhD candidate at the History Department, Central European University in Budapest and Vienna, where she is currently writing a dissertation on the intellectual history of Sokol movement in late Austria-Hungary and interwar Yugoslavia. Recently, she authored a book Najbolje namjere: britanski i francuski intelektualci i stvaranje Jugoslavije [Best Intentions: British and French Intellectuals and the Creation of Yugoslavia] that deals with British and French liberal intellectuals’ discourses and agitation around the creation of Yugoslavia during the First World War, as well as several articles on body-politics and eugenics in interwar Yugoslavia and position of intellectual history in Croatian historiography.

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: Photo shows young women standing in formation, during the 6th Sokol Slet (gymnastic festival) held in 1912 in Prague, Austria-Hungary. Creative Commons.